Rough and Rowdy Ways Part 4: The Rubicon to Key West

by Stephen Scobie

Previously in this series

“Crossing the Rubicon”

I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day
Of the most dangerous month of the year

What would Julius Caesar do?  Well, one answer is that he would lead his army across the River Rubicon, thus precipitating Civil War in Rome.  So this action has become emblematic of a decisive and irrevocable act, a calculated risk, a breaking of taboos.  In Caesar’s case, it worked – but  there are no guarantees for prospective crossers.

Why the 14th day of an unnamed month?  The best known historical reference for that date would be July 14th: the storming of the Bastille, the beginning of the French Revolution, an ideal example of Rubicon crossing.  And July is, of course, the month named in honour of Julius Caesar – who actually crossed the river in January.  But there is also September 14th, 1901, date of the assassination of William McKinley: see below, the opening lines of “Key West.”

I painted my wagon, abandoned all hope.

“Paint your wagon” is a colloquial phrase for getting things ready to be done, deciding to act – not quite as drastic as crossing the Rubicon, but getting there.  Also the title of a 1969 movie musical starring, incongruously, Clint Eastwood.   And remember the “painted wagon” in “Senor” (1978).

“Abandoned all hope” comes from Dante’s Inferno: it is the inscription above the Gate of Hell.  Translations vary between “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” and “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”        

Well, the Rubicon is a red river

But it’s not the only one.  There is a Red River in Dylan’s home state of Minnesota.  There is a great 1948 western movie called Red River, whose plot has several echoes in RRW.  In 1997, Dylan recorded a wonderful song called “Girl from the Red River shore.”

I can feel the bones beneath my skin

It’s a bit of a stretch, but I cannot resist the echo from T.S. Eliot, “Whispers of Immortality,”  “Webster was much possessed with death / And saw the skull beneath the skin.”

And here again are the threats of violence –

I’ll make your wife a widow
You’ll never see old age….
I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife

And yet here too, in the midst of these threats, we come to the most explicitly redemptive lines on the whole album:

I feel the Holy Spirit inside
See the light that freedom gives
I believe it’s in the reach of
Every man who lives

— punctuated by an almost off-microphone “O Lord!”

Mona, baby, are you still in my mind?

Are we all the way back to 1966, “Memphis Blues Again,”  “Mona tried to tell me / To stay away from the train line”?  Or is it Lisa again?

“Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”

 Key West is, Dylan’s song tells us, “on the horizon line.”   It’s as far as you can go in one direction of America: the limit, the end.  But like a horizon, it recedes: it is always just beyond reach.  It is posited as an ideal, never quite attainable, but possibly imaginable in one particular place: Key West.

Historically, Key West has long been seen as a refuge, for pirates (such as one 18th century predator named Black Caesar!), or for writers, from Ernest Hemingway to Wallace Stevens.  (There is no doubt a whole article to be written on the links between Dylan’s song and Stevens’ poem “The Idea of Order at Key West,” but I’m sorry, I don’t feel up to attempting that one.)  The New Basement Tapes, the 2014 collection of songs based on texts written by Dylan in 1967 but left unfinished, contains one track entitled “Florida Key,” which also evokes the idea of an ideal destination.

But before we even get started, and despite the dreamy music in the background, there is a violent interruption:

McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled,
Doctor said McKinley, death is on the wall

The first two lines of Dylan’s song are the same as the first two lines of “White House Blues,” a 1926 song by Bill Monroe, lamenting the death of William McKinley, 25th President of the United States, who was assassinated in Buffalo, NY, on September 14th, 1901.  (See “Crossing the Rubicon” for another 14th.)  I am not aware of any special connection between McKinley and Key West   He appears here mainly as a signpost towards that huge song looming just ahead, “Murder Most Foul,” where his memory will hang in the background list of the four assassinated Presidents: Lincoln, Garfield. McKinley, Kennedy.  Still, it is an odd way to begin a song about an idyllic ideal.  As if, before the “idea of order” has even been established, it has to be brought violently back down to earth,  Later in the song, there will be another violent interruption.

Down in the boondocks

 See “Murder Most Foul.”

I’m looking for love, for inspiration
On that pirate radio station
Coming out of Luxembourg and Budapest

Key West always welcomed pirates, such as Black Caesar.  The term “pirate radio station” dates from Britain in the 1950s, when Radio Luxembourg operated outside the tight constraints of BBC regulation.  Many a British teenager lay awake at night listening to Radio Luxembourg beneath the pillows.  Later, the most famous pirate station was Radio Caroline, operating from a ship in the North Sea, forever patrolling just outside British territorial waters.  I am not familiar with the history of pirate radio in Hungary,  Maybe it’s just that Budapest rhymes with Key West.

Down in the flatlands

Not quite “Lowlands,” but almost.

Key West is the place to be
If you’re looking for immortality…
If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there

At the expense of a somewhat clumsy rhyme, this is the song’s most direct statement of the ideal waiting on, or beyond, the horizon line.

Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac

Allen, Gregory, Jack.  A triumvirate of the Beat Generation.  In 1954, Ginsberg recorded a song playing variations on “When the Saints Go Marchin’ in.”  It’s called “Walking at Night in Key West.”

Like Louis and Jimmy and Buddy and all the rest

Take your pick.  I guess Armstrong, Reed, and Holly, but the possibilities are endless.

Got my right hand high, with the thumb down

Again, justice as violence.  Thumb down is now generally accepted as a sentence of death.  (There is a memorable thumbs down in Spartacus.)  It was not ever thus.  In Roman times, and right up until just a couple of hundred years ago, it was the other way round.  Thumbs down asked the victorious gladiator to plunge his sword or spear into the ground, sparing the defeated opponent.  Thumbs up signalled that the death blow should come higher, into the heart or neck.

Down on the bottom

 The New Basement Tapes also contains a song called “Down on the Bottom.”  Perhaps Dylan did scavenge some lines from his earlier, forgotten, and newly rediscovered self.

I’ve never … wasted time with an unworthy cause

Recall “Restless Farewell”  (1964): “The cause was there before I came.”

Newton Street, Bayview Park….

Most of the street names in this song do show up on Internet searches of Key West street names.  Bayview Park is actually on Truman Avenue.  The only one I haven’t found is, perhaps unsurprisingly, History Street.  President Truman did have a Southern White House in Key West.  But he is one of the few Presidents named on this album who was not  assassinated.

Twelve years old, they put me in a suit
Forced me to marry a prostitute

What??  This is clearly a fiction, which (like “I shot a named Grey” in “Tangled Up In Blue”) is so obviously outrageous that it can only be seen as disrupting and blocking any autobiographical reading.  Like the first (McKinley) verse, it comes as a violent disruption of the ideal – which it then attempts to redeem: “we’re still friends”.

Intermission

So we come to the place where, if you’re going to listen to RRW all the way through, you have to get up from your chair, take out the first CD, fetch the second, put it on, settle back for another 17 minutes.  Many people, I suspect, may let it pass, treating RRW as a 9-song CD, ending with “Key West” – which gives that song a special emphasis, as the “last” song on the album, a position usually reserved by Dylan for definitive statements, from “Restless Farewell” to “Desolation Row” to “Dark Eyes” to “Ain’t Talking.”  And, of course, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” the only other song to occupy the whole of a single LP side, or a single CD.  “Murder Most Foul” is thus both an end and a new beginning.

It was the first song from the album to be released, and it was a bombshell.  There had been no advance publicity, not even rumours of its existence.  I remember getting up one morning, checking my computer, and starting to play a song logging in (surely a mistake!)  at 17 minutes,  (Actually a few seconds shorter, but 17 sounded conclusive.)   I understand that, technically, it could have fit on a single CD.  Setting it apart on a separate disc was a deliberate choice, giving it even greater prominence – which I, as listener, reinforce every time I get up to change the disc.

Untold Dylan: who we are what we do

Untold Dylan is written by people who want to write for Untold Dylan.  It is simply a forum for those interested in the work of the most famous, influential and recognised popular musician and poet of our era, to read about, listen to and express their thoughts on, his lyrics and music.

We welcome articles, contributions and ideas from all our readers.  Sadly no one gets paid, but if you are published here, your work will be read by a fairly large number of people across the world, ranging from fans to academics.  If you have an idea, or a finished piece send it as a Word file to Tony@schools.co.uk with a note saying that it is for publication on Untold Dylan.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with around 7000 active members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.  Not every index is complete but I do my best.   Tony Attwood

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Rough and Rowdy Ways Part 4: The Rubicon to Key West

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Wallace’s “Key West” can be interpreted as an artist imposing his/her own order on Nature and Society rather than merely reflecting it – ie,Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’.

    Analogically, parental pre-arranging marrages of offspring impose a strict order on social relations .

  2. Jeff says:

    “They say I shot a man named Grey is from Idiot Wind.
    Thanks for your exegesis.

  3. Kellichan says:

    I shot a man named Grey , from idiot wind surely.

  4. Paul Sutcliffe says:

    ‘the 14th day
    Of the most dangerous month of the year’
    Probably, already been remarked upon, but the 14th was also the day before the ides of March, the day on which Caesar was assassinated. In the Roman calender, the ides could also refer to the 15th of May, July or October.
    Julius Caesar, the first( among equals) in Dylan’s list of assassinated heads of state.

  5. Larry fyffe says:

    “Red River Shore” is the correct title of Dylan’s song…be wary of us “ant-f*ckers” lurking around, who are ready to pounce on unsuspecting prey!

  6. Larry fyffe says:

    Rather than to the John Wayne cattle-driving movie, Dylan’s song seems to relate more to the original version of the song “The River Valley”(in Manitoba) in which a soldier from eastern Canada deserts a French/Indian maiden who loves him, to whom she must sadly say ‘adieu’ (in Dylan’s rendition, the woman advises her lover to ‘go home’.

    The original Canadian song later gets transferred to the Red River in the US south, and references a ‘cowboy’ instead.

  7. Larry fyffe says:

    This is not to say that Dylan isn’t alluding to the western song in which it is
    the woman who leaves the southern Red River Valley – leaving behind her
    French- speaking cowboy – sung by Mary Robbins, for example.

  8. Larry fyffe says:

    Everyone knows it was Oscar Wilde’s sharp pen that killed Dorion Gray(sic), and tried to frame Dylan for doing the dastardly deed….Gray’s proposeded marriage never happened so Bob could not have run off with his wife to Italy….not to mention that she had already killed herself.

  9. mike hermes says:

    i believe the 14th day of the most dangerous month is APRIL….titanic sunk, lincoln killed, big dust storm….see gillian welch & david rawlings songs (there are 2)

  10. Paul Sutcliffe says:

    Regarding being married to a prostitute:
    Hosea 1:2 “The Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom.’”
    Maybe, the exegesis on this is relevant as it applies to a promised land, or perhaps a shimmering vision, such as Key West.

  11. Larry fyffe says:

    Indeed, Hosea’s would be a pre-ordained wedding for sure – the Lord regarding nearly all Northern Israelites as prostitutes and idol worshippers – fits in with the idea of Key West (akin to split- in-half Israel)being like the corrupted
    two -pathed Underworld that Virgil describes in the ‘Aeneid.’

  12. Jack Russel says:

    It hit me that the 12 year old in a suit marrying a prostitute was his bar mitzvah. Key West is “paradise” and about as far from Hibbing as you can go. The whole album is a reflection on a life (career, touring) winding down. He has to adjust and that includes assessing his spiritual side. Maybe I’m way off, but who really knows. Great album.

  13. Larry fyffe says:

    “Red River Shore” is a move starring Rex Allen who sings ‘Red River Valley’.

  14. Larry fyffe says:

    *movie….western

  15. Larry fyffe says:

    Gene Autry stars in movie called ‘Red River Valley’, sings the song.

    Roy Rogers stars in a movie called ‘Red River Valley’, sings the song.

  16. Larry fyffe says:

    ‘RubiconRiver’ in English =’Red River’

  17. Marta says:

    In the Key West song Dylan mentions Truman. Harry Truman ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the 6th of August 1945 the Little Boy was detonated in Nagasaki and 3 days later on the 9th of August 1945 another bomb called Fat Man hit Nagasaki. Apparently Truman didn’t loose his sleep over this decision (according to his own statement).

  18. Jim Scott says:

    Re: “Luxemburg & Budapest”

    Radio Luxemburg was, I would contend, never classed as a pirate station given its status within a sovereign country. Unlike Caroline, London etc.

    But this fine detail would most likely have been lost on Dylan in his first trips to London from 1963 onwards.

    Budapest might well be an allusion to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in October 1956. It was before television became pervasive in Europe and, very significantly, the “rebels” who were crushed by the Russian tanks, used Radio Budapest to appeal, forlornly for outside help.

    This poignant message will have struck very deep with 15 year old Bobby Zimmerman, I feel sure.

  19. Marta says:

    I spotted a mistake I made which I want to correct. A bomb called “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima (not on Nagasaki). By the way I can’t believe that somebody could call a weapon of mass destraction “Little Boy”!!!. It is evil in itself. The bomb which killed innocent civilians given such an innocent, even sweet name!?!? What can be more innocent than a child? A little boy or a girl for that matter. Little boy come blow your horn!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *